A SEASON OF THE HORNBILLS
This is the year when not even the living room is safe.
Outside; footsteps clunk on crisp twigs that crunch over hushed voices almost stifled by a mixture of fear and anxiety. One living room window rattles. A morbid rock smashes through it collapsing glass panes into obsolete smithereens. This is the true heart of darkness where souls of an innocent family are strangled into the imminent grip of cruel uncertainty. A peaceful night collapses.
“Ng’aaaaaa aaa! Ng’aaaaaa aaa!”
The riotous sound of hornbills during the day and in such a night their conspicuous silence. This is the time of the year when these bold white and black birds, the seasonal birds around Mahii village, swoop in like vultures on the village fruit trees lashing and tearing into rotting fruits with their massive beaks abandoning behind them a lousy mess when they move on into another village thirsty to stir another lousy mess. Their presence is hard to ignore, they come in the season of fruits every year to find battalions of scarecrows and scores of children with catapults ready to wedge against them, a titanic war for their livelihoods.
It is dark in the living room. This is the year of the general election.
A voice behind a flashlight breaks into my dissolving composure. It is Julius Abraham Okwachi’s voice. Old Abraham as everyone fondly calls him flashes the torch into my face. I blink turning my face away from the light into her swollen eyes. She has been sleeping we all have been sleeping. He sharply swipes it around the living room, around our feet, over the television, beneath the sofas before he turns it to our feet again.
“They have come.”
He switches off the torch. Another stone lands into a window pane.
“Can you hear that?” she whispers.
“Those are stones from catapults.”
“Buzzing catapults are a declaration of war!” old Abraham declares.
“This is a declaration of war? Not again!”
She is distraught.
“Brother shall rise against brother my son, prophesy is being fulfilled. There is a time for everything; you will lead your mother after me.”
More resolutely does his good eye command but it’s invisible in the dark. Its inscrutable mettle demystifies any doubt who is the man of the hour. Old Abraham is unruffled. He stands tall-the Okwachi’s are from the tall stock. The man has devoutly worked; to his reputation there is a church, a family and scores of young scholars. He is a household name in Mahii.
When you hear people sing celebratory songs, in our village. It is credit to old Abraham. His school is the best Academy in the entire farming valley. Mahii is a pristine settlement. Close to it is the famous rift valley.
“We love the stew, we love the teachers we love the word of God.”
That is what you will always hear the children say for the love of their school motto. Food for the body, Education for the mind and to God be the glory.
The school has been my mother’s heart for as long as I can remember her unprejudiced love for children.
“We should improve the school menu.”
“That’s an idea but our budget needs a cut not a raise Anastasia.”
“Just add a fruit my wise man avocados would do great they are cheap and in plenty this season.”
Recently she had chimed obstinately trying to get old Abraham buy her new idea for the school children welfare.
“Yeah the season of avocados and those…”
“This is their migrating season.”
“What a coincidence that this is the election year.”
“Let’s pray for peace…”
“… and hope that only the hornbills will be migrating.”
“Aha!But don’t run away from avocados…”
Old Abraham contented to lose the argument and now we have bags of avocados in the school store. Some American evangelists who bankroll a charity for orphans in the academy were delighted when he wrote them an e-mail about the new developments within the week-courtesy of his wife Anastasia- so much so that they wrote back. We were to expect them as the mail put it in a month’s time.
But we are ‘immigrants’.Tala which is our ancestral enclave is miles away from Mahii.
“This is the land of your fathers.”
Years way back old Abraham took me on a pilgrimage to Tala. I had to face the knife in the land of my progenitors as custom prescribed or I would risk being considered a ‘woman’. The significance being that when my blood trickled from my foreskin to the ancestors long buried in the land there would be a binding covenant between me and my heritage. It was quite a poignant time for me. I remember a vista of interspersed rocky crags and plains of furrowed strips of land. Then there were smaller pieces like handkerchiefs strewn with Mexican sun flower plants whose illuminating yellow flowers in the sun chocked any view of the grass beneath. This impression was inexplicably empowering.
The end of the pilgrimage came at the time I healed from the cut. So old Abraham had left his people and made for the unknown country Mahii, I remember gloating over that realization and immediately forming a new respect for the man. Armed with great faith in conservative Christianity, the gift of the garb, a legendary obstinacy in the belief of his talents and some handsome saving from a former herbal medicine trade he established that small empire in Mahii-a school, a farm and a family. Old Abraham was a total man old Abraham to this hour is a man.
It is midnight.
Esther my younger and only sibling is away in Nairobi visiting my father’s only sister our aunt Bella. I am fond of Esther and I am missing her right now. How could this happen just now?
—Happy birthday may you live to blow a thousand candles—
That was her message on my last birthday. And what a pleasure it had been.
My face relaxes into a quick smile fast cut short in its prime by a dozen window panes scattering.
“We can’t just be killed!” I can feel myself sliding into a panic.
“We must leave now!”
“But papa we are unarmed.”
“The more reason we need to move fast Apopo.”
“Without arms at least let me carry a machete, a stick anything…”
“We are not at war.”
I cannot believe him.
“We will touch no hair; we will raise no finger nor spill blood.”
“We are God fearing people. This is the land God gave us. He surely shall not forsake us. We will try and negotiate with our brothers they surely cannot harm us. I have done so much for this people surely they will remember my good deeds. But if we must die lets die in faith and on the side of peace. My house shall not have blood on its hands.”
Does he want our blood washing the carpets then? Old Abraham is surely out of his wits. This is the opium of faith. Conscience makes the coward of us at times when it’s least rewarding.
“An eye for an eye Apopo blacks out the sun and the moon.”
Only the foolish get killed. Are we as foolish as the hornbills that eat rotting avocados?
“Apopo we can run but we cannot hide from death.”
It’s good I have a kitchen knife tucked somewhere on my body anyway.
He is the patriarch, the general of this besieged army. We the loyal lieutenants must stride along to the gallows if that be as it may. I am not startled that mother’s lips are sealed like the lock of the school store. There is a strict hierarchy in this army. The general has exclusive privileges to have the last word. I have no entitlement to speak whatsoever in such circumstances. I am too old to be living with them anyway. At thirty I should be in my own house with my own wife and woes. But life is hard as you all know.
“Why don’t you join the army instead of sitting behind your computer all the time? Computers don’t give jobs.” he one time suggests I recall.
“I am thinking about it.” I lie.
“Don’t think my son act.”
At that point I should have acted. But I could not picture myself in the uniform. I am an intellectual, an Engineering graduate aspiring to teach in the school of Engineering and Technology, I am no scowling saluting pumpkin to be indoctrinated into a patriotic fallacy.
After all I am now a father. Elizabeth my longtime love just wrote me an email demanding I exercise the first bragging rights of a father and give my daughter a name. I love girls. I am already in love with my daughter. I gave her the most beautiful name.
Jasmine Christine Okwachi
A new flower into the Okwachi garden I suppose. Lately old Abraham’s old age has been more profound. His unshaven long beard resembles the stark Moses images in my long lived picture bible story book. His more often unkempt hair like that of a mad scientist has been almost neglected of care. I wish he learnt that he is a grandfather. What would he do about his current look?
Jasmine my daughter allow me to apologize for starting your life on earth as an absentee father. Of course you are innocent, you have not heard BBC radio announce that reports reaching them indicate that sporadic violence has erupted in our country. That said, welcome to the world of sorrows and troubles. I promise to be a great father though, to get a footing like fathers must and devote my ambitions to make you a princess, to live with you in a great house and take you to a great school. In short I want a great life for you but right now I even don’t know if I will live.
The clock chimes from somewhere. Who cares what time it is our only hope is hopelessness. There are voices shrieking in all manner of cadences around us like horny hornbills chasing each other to mate.
“The big nation plucks the stinking weeds!”
“Our soil groans under some foreign fat!”
“We the owners say out with their fat asses!”
“They are immigrants!”
“They are nonsense!”
“They are hornbills!”
“They are foreigners!”
This is a litany of derogatoriess that are shoved into our faces. It is an inscrutable rabble.
“One is called xenophobia but this is tribophobia.”
To myself I whisper and store in my heart as I pull my mother over. A long I drag a ting gunny bag stuffed with quick essentials haphazardly put together by the adorable mama.
“You have the bible in there?”
Hissing Molotov cocktails receive us metres away from the back door. An arrow, two and almost an entire quiver fly into the house. I clamp my fingers like an eagle’s hasty sharp claws on one that chances into my grasp breaking it into two after which I keep the tail for my own fancy. A number of men in berets charge in and make a wall around us.
A man falls down.
We are in the center of clomouring boots, clattering machetes, sticks, metal bars supporting all crudeness a mind can dare imagine of a savage confrontation. The rousing of the rabble keeps escalating like a hungry lion’s roar devouring any chances of negotiation whoever thought of such a crazy idea.
“Hornbills must go!”
“Hornbills must go!”
“Cut their necks here is a machete!”
“Exorcise our land!”
“Away with the evil spirits”
“Smoke them rats out.”
A roar picked here, a rasp picked there while hisses dole the thick air. It is endless. In the weight of hisses our blood is called for. From the discordant choir no choirmaster could make out an intelligible rhythm.
Old Abraham’s concrete and mortar perimeter wall is a heap of rubble.
“Papa the wall is down.”
I look around.
“The wall is gone?”
Where is he? Where is old Abraham? I see only strangers.
“The wall is fallen! The wall! The wall is fallen.” A man in a beret shouts. A military order follows.
“Fire into the scoundrels bellies boys just fire life in danger!”
“Boys fire to kill or to make way!”
Pulsating chains of gunshots arrest the air. In that pathetic incendiary fog my concentration is disfigured.
“God do not forsake us!” mama gasps gnashing her teeth.
“Apopo get my headscarf!”
I grab it for her. It has loosened in the scuffle and fallen to the ground.
“Apopo oh Apopo oh Apopo!” she weeps.
I am soaked in blood and feel sickeningly nauseated. It must be my ugly sight that is driving her into further insanity. What insanity is this?
The dénouement approaches.
In the throes of a tragedy comes insanity.
The sight of a weeping mother before a son.
And the son speechless.
The teacher of vanities isn’t there a time for everything?
There is nothing new you on the other side of this page there is nothing new but the intensity of the hate. I am aware of this even as I cough out into thick dust which stings my eyes. I know it is vanity trying to figure out big words like Nationhood Brotherhood and Manhood.
Lemons are not my favourite fruits but I chew on one that kills the nausea.
There is a rough road that swirls past my roving eye. It feels like a cavalry front man in epic battles after a lucky hike from a bullet storm trying to have a cold drink beneath the shade of a tree. The KDF Bedford M-Series is a consoling beast that has swallowed our miseries. We are a light baggage for the droning military truck.
“Oh! What madness unwatched! Madness that is as pure as triple distilled vodka working in the head. The vote has been counted, rigged and the winner taken it all lets accept and move on.”
I ponder over a man’s words. It is a man who died trying to catch our lorry which was already full with ‘immigrants’. The truck full of us exotic hornbills, invaders who have perched for a long time on native trees, feeding on the fruit of the land.
“Accept and move on.”
Didn’t he say so? Yes.
In this treacherous sea of misery there is a soldier. His face is distorted with patriotic scars perhaps fighting Alshabaab extremists in the snake infested bush on the Kenya Somalia border. A 450mm barrel G-3 rifle is slung over his shoulder below a square perfect jaw. He is tall like three of the G-3s vertically on top of each other with an easy air around him. I can discern beyond his face there lays an experience that would thrill action movie script writers. He is a jolly like fellow; with the sole conviction of defending his country from invasion.
As he leans forward under my watchful eye I notice his intimate grip on the gun. Up on the arm there is a double stripe of rank which evidently has seen its better days.
“It has always been like this.” he says.
I look around but I realize he is talking to me.What a way to begin an acquaintance? The Kenyan way of course; where like old friends strangers become familiar acquaintances by striking a conversation without formalities.
“1988, 92’, 97’ and the game continues.” he speaks in a deep voice.
“It’s not a game.”
“It’s a game I tell you.”
“It’s a bloodbath.”
He stumps out a cigarette under his boot.
“You must be young.”
“I am thirty.”
“Thirty is young.”
Is it really? I wonder.
“I still think it’s not a game soldier.”
He unexpectedly explodes in laughter through an outlandish crackle of a smoker’s deep voice.
“You still have milk teeth in Kenyan politics I see.”
“Egalitre, liberte , fraternite,”
What I’m I even saying?
“The people need to rise up.”
“What are you saying?”
“Equality liberty and fraternity is what we need.”
“What nonsense is that?”
“Nonsense, the kind of which will stop the cycle of death our five years have become. The kind of nonsense that happened years back in France and people were set free from tyranny. The kind of tyranny we have here in the corridors of power.”
“Now I see.” he chuckles
“You must be university material that is the only place you can collect such rubbish.”
“Yes I am a graduate.”
As I own up I cannot escape to notice his dismissive tone of my ilk. However it is common out here and I’m not offended least of all.
“I am sorry you are too idealistic. You are like a wind bag. And that is the problem with you people. The world out here is a world of action not theories. You cannot get a woman by only singing love songs to her. She needs to see some action man.”
We both chuckle.
“Soldier then I think my life has been a fraud.”
“Spill the beans.”
“The big dreams of becoming a great man could just be an illusion. For me to be a great man in this country I have to become a politician.”
“You are now plucking your milk teeth man. All those theories you cram at the University will take you nowhere. Pluck some more teeth. Open your eyes crack your skull.”
This is it! I say to hell with dreams to make it big. The man speaks the truth no doubt. The world out here is real.
“Do you have a wife?”
“No but my girlfriend just gave birth to a baby girl.”
“My congratulations are in order.”
He stretches a rough hand and grabs mine in a firm grip.
“Is it a boy or girl?”
“It is a girl.”
“Be a good father.”
He releases my hand.
What a promise. The road is bumpy, full of potholes. The Bedford bumps into a small pothole, and then lurches into a bigger one like a hornbill lurching onto a branch of an avocado tree. We are swayed from our positions and the soldier is swallowed into a body of men. It’s a bumpy ride and bumpy rides can be rough.
A corpse now travels with us. An arrow sticks out of its chest and another in the left shoulder. Its entire torso is bloodied. A signal is given and the truck stops. If we have to go all the way and have peace with the corpse which will stink worse than rotten avocadoes we need to find a burial ground as fast as we can.
The soldier and all his available comrades are quite handy. With concerted effort we wrap old Abraham’s body into a collection of leso’s provided by the women among them Anastasia’s which is emblazoned with the patriotic mantra Kenyans love peace. Poor mother steel your nerves and accept your widowhood and move on.
‘Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood’
In some savage thicket between the intermittence of the hooting of hornbills and ominous silence old Abraham is laid to rest.